Sunday, 12 April 2015

Consolidation of democracy in Nigeria

The Islamic militant group Boko haram, which has wreaked havoc in parts of Nigeria, influenced the outcome of this year’s presidential election. These terrorists must be eliminated as the first priority of the new administration, along with other urgent scourges such as endemic corruption.The euphoria is still in the air following 28 March’s successful democratic elections in Nigeria that saw Jonathan Goodluck concede defeat to General Mahmmadu Buhari. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has done African proud by proving skeptics wrong. To be honest, this election could have gone terribly wrong: rigging, disruption by Boko haram, and contesting election results that could plunge Nigeria into civil war. It is still too early to predict whether General Buhari will help Nigeria consolidate democracy like it has been in some promising African countries such as Ghana, Zambia, Botswana, Malawi, and South Africa. This article discusses two developments or trends that clearly were at play as Nigeria was charting a way forward in this year’s elections. These are: Bokoramization of politics and the consolidation of democracy. 


The notorious militant group Boko haram that has been wrecking havoc in northern parts of Nigeria, especially the kidnapping of school girls, no doubt played a pivotal role in the dwindling political fortunes of President Jonathan Goodluck. The key question that Nigerians and all those keenly interested in the politics of Nigeria was: How did this militant group manage to grow into a formidable force that could take on the state and even cross into neighboring states such as Cameroon and Chad? Nigeria is one of the most well endowed countries in the African continent when it comes to military personnel and equipment. So it came as a shock that such a country that has been contributing forces to West African regional force ECOMOG and helping to stabilize failed states could fail to contain a militant group within its borders. Either Goodluck’s government underestimated Boko haram or it lacked the political will and the correct strategies to deal with the insurgence. 

Some sections of Nigerians were even suspecting that Goodluck delayed solving the issue of Boko haram militants so as to use it to win political capital if at all he could address it shortly before elections. If this was the calculation, it backfired badly. Meanwhile, General Buhari with his supporters capitalized on Goodluck’s failure to end Boko haram insurgency. 

To shed some more light on the Boko haram phenomenon, one needs to situate Nigerian politics in the wider perspective of Nigeria’s highly militarized politics right from independence. Nigeria is so far the African country with the highest number of military coups. Talk of Nigerian politics brings memories of military takeovers such that many analysts wonder whether a civilian head of state can manage to keep Nigeria together. Countries that have had a long history of military regimes will find it very difficult to make a transition to civilian rule. What usually happens is that a former military ruler turns into a civilian leader through elections under the premise that a leader with a military background has the necessary discipline and firepower to contain militaristic tendencies lingering within the state. This partly explains why General Buhari might have persuaded a good number of Nigerians, including retired Generals, that he can deal decisively with Boko haram since he can speak the language of force if negotiations failed. 

Still it is not clear why Boko haram insurgency emerged in the first place. The simplistic explanation that Boko haram emerged to contest Western education and its values is not convincing enough. It is also not clear who was behind Boko haram apart from the claim that it has an Islamic militant ideology similar to that of Al Shabab and Al Qaeda. Who is funding and arming Boko haram? Could the group be a front for some deeper political grudges that have not been resolved within Nigeria’s internal geo-ethnopolitics?

It is also possible that the Bokoharam phenomenon is a remnant or the last kicks of Nigeria’s militarized politics. It would be naïve to assume that the process of democratization in a country that has had generations of military rule would just take root through the ballot box. Hence we need to look closely at the potential for consolidation of democracy in Nigeria basing on this year’s elections.


President Jonathan was gracious and statesmanlike in conceding defeat and congratulating General Buhari. Goodluck is indeed lucky that he has seen Nigeria make a smooth electoral transition. It is not inconceivable to consider Goodluck for the Mo Ibrahim Prize for successfully relinquishing power. The building blocks for democratic consolidation in Nigeria are now in place, it all depends on how General Buhari will play his political cards. What will it take for democracy to take firm roots in Nigeria? This year’s elections were conducted in a fairly free and peaceful manner. Some irregularities were noted but they are minimal and can be addressed in courts of law. Nigeria’s electoral commission will therefore be critical in ensuring free, fair and credible elections for years to come. The move from bullets to ballots is now part of Nigeria’s political narrative and needs to be celebrated.

Nigeria is also a multiethnic society with ethno-politics looming large. It is not yet clear how ethnicity played out in this year’s elections. Part of the process of consolidating democracy in Nigeria is to rally voters around manifestos that address real issues instead of where a person comes from or his tribe. The other identity that is contested is religion especially Islam and Christianity — the two main spiritual contenders for Nigeria’s public space.

The elephant in the Nigeria’s room is corruption. It is naïve to assume that one can consolidate democracy in a corrupt environment. Nigeria’s oil resources end up in the pockets of a few elite. The Nigerian economy would easily be the shining model for the Africa were it not for corruption. Hopefully General Buhari who has the broom as his political symbol will sweep corruption out of Nigeria’s public sector, especially in the oil industry. With this euphoria of successful elections of 2015, Nigeria needs to work on her image and not continue to be labeled as Africa’s most corrupt nation. Nigeria needs to rebrand itself. But for radical change to happen along this line, civil society and individual Nigerians will have to be on the same page as the government in working for a new dispensation.

Not to be left out in this clamor for a new dispensation in Nigeria are religious leaders. Nigeria is notoriously religious but this religious fervor needs to be translated into dynamics of social transformation rather than religious fundamentalism. Religion should be catalyst for social justice and social transformation and not a legitimizing force for the status quo. 


Nigeria’s recently concluded elections have set a pace for the rest of the African continent. It is hoped that other countries will follow this example with the conviction that there is life after one has handed over power to the next democratically elected leader. Nigeria has what it takes to consolidate her democracy, but the road ahead is a long and a dusty one. Aware that democracy is not an event but a process, democratic consolidation in Nigeria will require concerted efforts by all stakeholders in the process of nation building. 

Let us hope that Boko haram will not spoil the party. It would be absurd if the militants were to spoil the excitement ushered in by successful elections. If there is one lesson to learn from this year’s elections, it is the following: that political issues can be resolved by the ballot and not by the bullet. And if other African countries that will have elections in the near future follow the Nigerian path, we can speak of Africa’s fourth wave of democratization. An African spring will have been ushered in without street protests to pull down regimes. 

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